Notes on Dan Olner’s Do We Need Nature? Master’s Thesis; 2004. Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. (basic topic: Complex Adaptive Systems and political economy).

The point for me was:
Both the left and the right utilise CAS to justify a faith in the self-organising nature of either markets and/or social movements. Further, it is astounding that the left don’t appear to realise that they are echoing the traditional rational of the right. And it’s astounding that both sides appear not to question the assumption that spontaneously emerging outcomes will be desirable.
– the leftist view, says dan, is characterised by the belief that ‘right’ action will crystallise into the world directly .

(in my thesis I made a contrast between emergent explanations and transparent explanations – ie those in which the functionality of the sub-units is directly manifested in the functionality of the whole. It seems analagous).

(i think the Axelrod stuff on evolution of altruism / iterated game theoretic approaches to ethics is relevant here. As an example, we might instinctively asign absolute pacifism a kind of moral superiority, but if we take a (socially) wider view, immediate retribution is kinder to everyone because it discourages future law-breaking)

– the rightwing view, in my opinion, is characterised by the failure to acknowledge that markets are willful creations of culture, not an independent realm resting outside of culture.

We’re still a long way from absorbing this way of thinking and truely moving to the next level in our thinking. To wit, to quote Dan (p12)

Presuming that such dynamics did exist, what do political actors do about it?

What indeed. I think we need to understand CAS, not so we can stand in awe at their function (although we should do that too), but so that we can develop laws, institutions and habits which work with physics of society rather than against them (this was how Philip Ball concluded last week’s lecture at the Royal Institution. I thought it was platitudinous at the time, but now I think he’s spot on. This is the area where we need to focus our attention).

On the political theory side of things, Dan discusses the way political ideologies define what is natural and use that to say what can and cannot be interfered with legitamately. He also makes an observation that seems the complement of one of Philip Ball’s. Dan says: political ideologies always try to recruit science to legitimise their claims – so we should be wary when listening to political claims involving science. Philip says that, historically, those who attempt to use the scientific method to derive political convinctions usually end up merely deducing the conclusions that they were theoretically pre-disposed prefer – so we should be wary when listening to scientific claims involving politics.

Dan also observes that CAS-style thinking is taken to indicate the bankruptcy of carterian rationality. ‘Yes!’ I’d say. And i think this comes through from Critical Mass as well. There is no ‘utopia theory’, in the sense of a theory which will provide your solutions in advance. If there’s any way to use CAS politically it is in the rejection of grand-narratives (how postmodern), a skepticism of ideologically-led prescriptions. We can use these concepts in understanding complex systems, but they aren’t going to do the work for us. Each complex system will be different and we will need to do the work ourselves in finding out how. Don’t theorise – investigate!

Perhaps one moral. Evolution has done quite well with designing complex systems. Evolution is a tinkerer. Let’s tinker.

Further to this, there was an interesting In Our Time a few weeks ago about Lamark. The panel discussed the strands of evolutionary theory which connected with Lamark (and his famous fallacy). Seems Lamarkianism is part of a deep vein of evolutionary thought which emphasises organism-environment interaction to a greater extend than individually, and intra-individually, focussed neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Something to be aware of.